If you had to describe Lucinda Williams’ sound or songwriting style, the term “road worn” comes to mind. But judging from night one of her two-night stint at the Opera House last night, her voice and passion for her craft are anything but.
At 63-years-old, Williams is essentially peerless. Her music is a warts-and-all fusing of country, gospel, folk and dirty blues. At once, she’s rawer than Steve Earle, with a voice that’s more classically trained and polished than Willie Nelson. You can hear the pain of her past and you can smell the dust in the room she used to record her albums. She’s a regular at festivals like TURF, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, and acts like Houndmouth, the Lumineers, and Sturgill Simpson would not exist without her discography. And if you wanted to expose yourself to that discography, any one of her 13 albums – including her 2016 masterpiece Ghosts of Highway 20 would be an excellent start.
So that’s where we were at on Thursday night, 37 years of cherished material rolled up into a solid two-hours, but before that got underway, Buick 60 treated us to a reverb-encrusted set.
Though she’s demure, polite and gracious, Williams’ experience on the road has clearly taught her how to pace a show. Her set’s first half hour was a collection of her most laid-back tracks, including “Protection”, “Something Wicked this Way Comes” and her new album’s title track, which she performed entirely alone, without the aid of her deadly backing band. Before she started on that one, she talked about what Highway 20 actually is. She described how it winds through towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia – all of which parts of her family are from, and all of which profoundly affected her and her songwriting. She described it as a companion piece to her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
While totally engaged throughout her set, Williams doesn’t take too much time to chitchat with the crowd. And that’s fine, because every song she’s written is an intricately written story of itself. Better to let those do the talking.
About an hour in, Williams and her band’s tempo started getting faster, starting with her classic “Drunken Angel”. With the feedback getting louder and room feeling like a sweaty Mississippi watering hole, Williams commanded our energy, purposely losing bits of her folk sound with each song that approached the set’s end, and cranking up the blues-rock. Williams is also known for her rousing covers – especially on this tour. So while she may lay into the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Friday night’s set, she was gracious enough to treat us to a soulful cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (pretty appropriate right now) and every band’s favourite cover to play in Toronto; Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin in the Free World”.
To see Lucinda Williams live in 2016 is to understand where 50 per cent of today’s most popular music comes from. It also proves that while you may not want to relive some of Williams’ own life experiences, you also can’t duplicate the effect those experiences have on songwriting. To see Lucinda Williams in 2016 is to truly understand where the term “American Classic” comes from.
See more photos from the show here.